Things To Watch For The Yankees in 2021
By Chris O’Connor
Dec. 24, 2020
Will Gary Sanchez bounce back?
Gary Sanchez has been an incredibly inconsistent player since his debut in 2016. He exploded out of the gate in the second half of 2016, had a terrific 2017, an awful 2018, a solid 2019, and an awful 2020. If the pattern persists, he should bounce back in 2021, but can the Yankees count on him to man the catcher position for the foreseeable future? He has one more year of arbitration in 2022 before hitting free agency. If he bounces back, do the Yankees extend him after the season to prevent him from hitting free agency the following year? Do they wait to see if he can do it again in 2022? Trade him while his value would conceivably be high? If he struggles again, it would seem to be an easier call to get rid of him. The team seemed to cool off on the unwavering support for Sanchez in 2020; the patience of Cashman and Boone has to be running thin. They appeared to at least consider non-tendering Sanchez, and the fact that his rapport with Gerrit Cole was not exactly great does not bode well for his future with the team. If Sanchez struggles again in 2021, the team will almost certainly move on from him after the season. I am rooting for him to succeed next year, but if he does, the team will have some difficult questions to answer.
Can Gleyber Torres man the shortstop position?
Gleyber Torres is undoubtedly a budding star for the Yankees. Though he struggled in the weird 2020 (Cashman said he arrived at the second spring training out of shape), he hit for an WRC+ of 122 and 125, respectively, in 2018 and 2019. In 21 postseason games he has hit .342 with 5 homers and 15 RBI’s, becoming one of the few Yankees in recent years to really elevate his game when the pressure is highest. ZIPS projections are very high on Torres, forecasting him to hit 44 homers, 121 RBI’s, and over 5 WAR next year. However, his defense at shortstop leaves much to be desired. 2020 was his first year as the full-time, undisputed shortstop. In 2020, out of 45 shortstops with at least 90 innings at the position, he ranks dead last in Fangraphs overall defensive score and 42nd in UZR/150 games, demonstrating his limited range. Maybe Cashman was right and the fact that he came in out of shape hindered his ability in a shortened season. With a more normal and scheduled (but still different) offseason, he should improve, but by how much? The free agency class after the 2021 season is famously loaded with young studs at shortstop: Trevor Story, Javier Baez, Fransico Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager. It’s unlikely that all five of them hit free agency (I doubt Baez does), but some of them will certainly be available. In an ideal scenario, Torres can demonstrate significant improvement at the position and show that he can man it for years to come. If he does not, the team could look at one of the free agents and move Torres to second base.
Is the rotation deep enough behind Cole?
The elephant in the room here is Luis Severino. Severino had Tommy John surgery in late February but he projects to be back around June or July of 2021. I would think the Yankees will play it safe with Severino, putting him under a strict innings limit up to and possibly including the playoffs. After Cole and Severino comes many questions. Jordan Montgomery is a decent number 3 or 4 starter, but I’m not sure I am completely comfortable with him pitching a big game in the playoffs. Deivi Garcia has upside, but little experience and a smaller stature that might make it difficult for him to stay healthy. Clark Schmidt has similar upside, but at this point in his career he can’t be counted on to pitch big innings for the team. He might have a breakout year, but that is more wishful thinking than actual expectations. Michael King is in the same boat. Domingo German has not pitched since 2019 and comes with significant concerns outside of baseball, not to mention the fact that it looked like he was mulling retirement in a bizarre Instagram post during the 2020 season. Happ, Tanaka, and Paxton are all free agents. I doubt they bring back Happ, and Paxton’s injury concerns make it unlikely he returns as well. I would love for the team to re-sign Tanaka, a reliable, if unspectacular, starter who can be counted on to take the mound every 5 days and has a history of excellent playoff performances. Cashman’s recent comments on the team’s main offseason goal to be retaining Lemahieu and staying under budget makes this more unlikely than I initially thought (but still possible). The Yankees are not signing Trevor Bauer, but a veteran number 2 or 3 starter like Jake Odorizzi or Jose Quintana has to be on the table. Other options to look at are older guys with proven playoff performances like Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, or Cole Hamels.
Can the team stay healthy?
I am starting to think that this is less of a luck thing and more that the guys on this team are just injury-prone. The next-man-up mantra that worked so well in 2019 grew old in 2020 when the backups like Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford, and Tyler Wade struggled with extended playing time. Stanton should be a full time DH, which significantly hinders the flexibility of the roster but allows him the best chance to stay healthy over the course of a season. Judge has MVP-level production when healthy, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy over the course of a season if he wants a big contract extension from the team in the near future. The Yankees have a lot of outfield depth, but a healthy Aaron Hicks makes a huge impact with the bat and with outstanding defense in center field. My optimistic take on the injuries is that this is the first full offseason for the new training staff who took over last January. They can implement complete, individualized offseason training programs for every player so that they can come into camp ready to play with (hopefully) reduced risk of injury.